Kvetching Through the Desert

While Standing (Six Feet Apart) on One Leg
May 28, 2020

The Jewish festival of Shavuot begins this evening. In case you are unfamiliar with the holiday, it lands on the 50th day after Passover begins. It is the time of the first harvest, the time of the giving of the Torah, and the season of revelation.

This is a season unlike any other. No one would disagree about that. Way back 50 days ago, we were preparing for the first Zoom Seder ever. Since then, there have been dozens of online meetings, counseling sessions, classes, services, get-togethers and so forth. And tonight, as we gather around our computers to study Torah with some terrific scholars, we will be Zooming Shavuot. I am looking forward to being a student in the zoom crowd and not a teacher. Learning from others is a gift.

I think we have learned a great deal from others during this pandemic. Some good. Some not so good. We have seen violence, persecution, threats but also compassion, understanding and love.

And as we have learned about each other, we have also learned about our country. The racial divide, the political divide, the class divide, the economic divide and the truthfulness divide has become fully apparent. We have been told it was always there by those who always felt it but since many of us never felt it we may have tucked it away under the file of ‘not really my problem.’

But now it is our problem. Because right in front of us we saw a black man get gunned down for jogging. We saw a black man get choked to death on the sidewalks under a policeman’s knee. We saw a black man get accused of threatening to harm a white woman who would have been believed had the black man not videoed the whole episode. And then, just like clockwork, the explainers come out of the woodwork to try to explain away the horror.

Indeed, our problem is the violence, but our problem is also the excusers of the violence, the lies, and the hate.

I am quite certain by now that this country has fundamentally changed due to the virus. Of course, we have no idea how much so, but it is possible that the pain we are feeling now will be the trigger for healing and self-awareness. I could be dreaming, of course, but I would rather dream of a better future than despair of the future if it is like the present.

As we enter into the Shavuot season, we also enter into the book of Numbers. This is not a coincidence. The experience of the exodus from Egypt freed us. The experience at Sinai defined us. The desert experience molded us. And in so many places in the book of Numbers, there was division, anger, jealousy, hatred and strife. You know, what happens when two Jews have three opinions! (Old joke, I know, but true). But in the mind of the Jew, having disagreements is not a bad thing. Even getting angry is not a bad thing. The Torah may have a judgement against the rebellions and anger and jealousy but it never commands us to repress it. The Torah knows we can’t. No, the Torah is a document of the story of how we emerged as a people out of the desert. Going through the desert was the easy part. Getting out as one people was harder part.

Today in America, we are in the middle of desert of racism, anti-Semitism, political fratricide, and what seem to be insurmountable problems. They very well might be. We may sink so low that even the most creative and optimistic among us may simply give up. But that is not the Jewish way, ever. In the Torah there was Moses who wanted to give up until God convinced him not to. We ought to learn from that.

We have clearly failed in so many ways as a country. But failure and giving up are not the same thing. If there is one thing Jews cannot afford, it is crying ‘uncle.’ Losing hope and faith is, in my estimation, the greatest sin a Jew can commit.

In relatively short order, this virus will be history. (I am assuming there will be a vaccine or cure. There’s that darn hope again). We will have traveled a terrible path together. But just because our path was terrible, does not mean that we have to be. Jews learned a long time ago ‘הִנֵּ֣ה מַה־טֹּ֭וב וּמַה־נָּעִ֑ים שֶׁ֖בֶת אַחִ֣ים גַּם־יָֽחַד׃ ‘How wonderful it is and how comforting it is for us to dwell together as brothers and sisters.’ The hatred will stop when we see one another as traveling the same desert.

Our pandemic problem is that too many people think they own the desert.